Protesting With Their Feet

Yesterday Vice President Mike Pence gave the commencement address at the Notre Dame  University graduation ceremony in South Bend, Indiana.  As Pence began speaking, dozens of graduating students walked out.

22746804-mmmainThe theme of the Vice President’s address was the importance of freedom of speech and tolerance for different points of view, on college campuses and elsewhere.  Many conservative commentators made fun of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech, deriding them as delicate “snowflakes” who simply couldn’t bear to hear opposing views and finding it paradoxical that the students would walk out on a speech that urged them to listen to other, opposing perspectives.

I’ve had a lot of problems with the trampling of free speech rights on college campuses these days, but in this instance I think the critics are wrong.  The Vice President was exercising his free speech rights by giving an address with the content of his choice, and the students were exercising their free speech rights by walking out on the speech as a protest of Trump Administration policies.  The students exited stage left not because they are “snowflakes” who felt they simply couldn’t withstand Pence’s commencement address — a sentiment, incidentally, that many people who have attended overlong, droning college commencement speeches would secretly share — but because walking out was a visible sign of profound disagreement with the views of the speaker.  It’s a form of the kind of silent protest that we’ve seen many times in American history.

In fact, I commend the Notre Dame protesters, because their protest was non-violent and respectful of Pence’s free speech rights.  They didn’t try to shut him up, in contrast to other recent incidents on campus in which agitators have used violence to prevent some people from speaking — such as the mob that shamefully disrupted a lecture by scholars with different viewpoints at Middlebury College and, in the process, gave a Middlebury professor whiplash and a concussion.  The Notre Dame students had every right to “vote with their feet” and send Pence a message that they disagree with what the Trump Administration is doing, and they found an appropriate way to send that message.

I wish more people would listen to opposing viewpoints and try to understand them, but I’m more concerned about people who think that just because they disagree with someone that person shouldn’t be permitted to speak at all — something that is antithetical to one of the most important rights guaranteed to all Americans.  Based on the protest yesterday, I’d say that a Notre Dame education has given those graduates a pretty good understanding of how the Bill of Rights is supposed to work.

Tweety Dick

Sometimes modern life in America is so weird it’s hard to really take it all in.  The increasingly bizarre twists and turns of our politics and political leaders, the corrosive effect of simplistic social media platforms, the constant craving for attention and celebrity status — all combine to create a world where the strange has become routine.

57cc54c17b55c9ceef53dff107138873Consider, for example, how the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum reacted to President Trump’s decision to discharge FBI Director James Comey.  Trump’s abrupt firing reminded people of the “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Nixon Administration, in which Nixon’s zeal to discharge Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, resulted in the resignation of the Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General.

So what did the Nixon Library do in response to this newfound attention?  Did it supply the press with the actual background facts of the incident that the Washington Post called, at the time, “the most traumatic government upheaval of the Watergate crisis,” so that people could make their own comparisons and draw their own conclusions?

Nah.  It sent out a tweet that said:  “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”  Ha ha!  Boy, that Nixon Library is a laugh riot, isn’t it?  And a class act, besides!  And it sure helps to be reminded that, before Nixon resigned in disgrace after being impeached, there were some bad and ill-advised things that Nixon didn’t do, doesn’t it?

To its credit, the National Archives and Records Administration, which administers the presidential libraries, issued a statement about the Nixon Library tweet.  It noted that “[a]s a federal government agency, the National Archives does not condone or engage in partisan or political conversations,” added that the tweet “was not representative of the policies of the Library or the National Archives,” and noted that the Archives would be “examining the training provided to employees who post to official social media channels as well as reviewing work flows and approval processes to ensure that our social media efforts engage the public in constructive conversations in line with agency policies.”  Fortunately, there apparently is at least one adult in the room.

It’s hard to imagine that anybody in the Nixon Library gave much thought to the snotty tweet; they probably were reveling in the attention they were receiving in connection with the Comey firing and just couldn’t resist getting in a little dig that would boost the trending line of Tricky Dick and his library.  And that’s really the basic problem these days, isn’t it?  People just don’t think twice, or even try to resist their baser impulses.

The Comey Canning

As Forrest Gump might have said, any day with the Trump Administration is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you’re going to get.  Yesterday, we got the decision from President Trump to fire the Director of the FBI, James Comey.  And, to accentuate the bizarre, bolt from the blue aspect of the decision, Comey apparently learned of the decision when the news flashed across the TV screen behind him while he was giving a speech, and he initially chuckled and thought it was a joke.

The White House says that Trump acted on the recommendation of senior officials in the Justice Department, who concluded that Comey botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s questionable email practices and, in the process, caused “substantial damage” to the credibility and reputation of the FBI that has “affected the entire Department of Justice.”

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in WashingtonThe Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, prepared a memorandum citing reasons for Comey’s discharge that stated:  “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”  Among other mistakes, Rosenstein cited Comey’s curious July 5 press conference, where Comey announced that charges would not be pursued against Clinton but then castigated her creation of the servers and her handling of confidential materials.  Rosenstein stated that Comey acted “without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders” and added: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation . . . we never release it gratuitously . . . It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

There is truth the Rosenstein’s statement about a bipartisan consensus that Comey’s handling of the email investigation involved a lot of mistakes; Comey’s actions and his decision to make an abrupt, pre-election announcement of a renewed investigation into Clinton’s email servers were criticized by former attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations.  And only this week, the FBI had to correct misstatements Comey made in recent testimony to Congress about the email investigation.

But there is something very unsettling about the Trump Administration’s abrupt decision to discharge Comey for actions he took months ago, because the decision comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation into Russian influence into the last presidential election and the actions of the Trump campaign in relation to the potential Russian involvement.  Trump’s letter to Comey giving him the boot oddly acknowledged the ongoing investigation, stating:  “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.’’  And Rosenstein has only been at his Department of Justice post for two weeks, which suggests that his first job assignment in his new position was to consider whether Comey should be fired.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are up in arms about the decision, which they compare to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday night massacre” of Justice Department officials, and members of Congress are calling for an investigation.  I think an investigation makes sense, but until then I’m going to reserve judgment and see what develops.  There’s no doubt that Comey had his issues, and it may well be that — unfortunate timing aside — the White House and the Department of Justice had legitimate concerns that he simply was incapable of handling the kind of highly sensitive investigations the FBI must undertake in a non-partisan way.  On the other hand, the timing is unfortunate, and naturally gives rise to suspicions about what really happened here.  A through investigation will help to establish the facts and clear the air.

In Our Own Personal Silos

The Brown Bear sent me this interesting article from The Economist.  The article is, on its surface, a rumination about Ohio Governor John Kasich and his new book, Two Paths:  America Divided or United, but the interesting stuff in the article wasn’t so much about the book as it was about our country.  It’s one of those articles that leave you nodding a bit, as you find that the conclusions drawn square with your own experience.

The gist of the underlying sociological message in the article is this:  Americans have become more and more confined and channeled in their interaction (or, more accurately, lack of interaction) with other Americans.  It isn’t just that Americans spend more time in individualized pursuits, such as watching TV, tapping away on their smart phones, working out, or surfing the internet — it’s that their entire lives are being designed, shaped, and structured to limit their exposure to people with different backgrounds, interests, and views.  In short, more and more people are living in their own personal silos.

silosOne element of this phenomenon is that Americans now are much less likely to participate in joint activities — be it bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, churches, or community groups — than used to be the case.  Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in the classic Democracy in America published way back in the 1830s, that Americans were unusually prone to forming associations and joining groups.  That remained true for decades; Grandpa Neal, for example, bowled in the Masonic League in Akron for more than 60 years and was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and a host of other civic and fraternal groups.  How many people do you know these days who are willing to spend their weekday evenings and weekends away from their homes and participating in such activities?  I don’t know many — and I include myself in that group.

But the change is even deeper than that.  The Economist article linked above notes that Americans now tend to live in distinct enclaves with people who share their political views and conditions.  One indicator of this is voting patterns in elections.  In the 1976 presidential election, some 27% of Americans lived in “landslide counties” that Jimmy Carter either won or lost by at least 20 percentage points.  In the 2004, 48 percent of the counties were “landslide counties,” and in 2016, fully 60 percent of the counties in America — nearly two thirds — voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.

What does this all mean?  It suggests that many Americans now tend not to even engage with people with different perspectives.  They don’t see them when they go home at night, they don’t talk to them, and they have no significant understanding of their thoughts, concerns, . . . or lives.  When people are so cloistered, looking only at the kind of websites that mirror their views and interacting only with people who share those views, there will inevitably be a great divide that will become increasingly difficult to bridge.  How do you get people who live in separate worlds, who don’t play softball or attend club meetings or participate in any interactive communal activities together, to understand and appreciate where people of different views are coming from, and why they hold those views in the first place?  Facile social media memes and tweets that depict people of opposing views as dolts, racists, sluggards, communists, or any of the other names that have become so common don’t seem to be working very well, do they?

This, I think, is one of the big-picture issues that we need to address as we work to get America back on track — and like many big-picture issues, it’s not really being discussed or addressed by anyone, because these days we focus on the small things.  I’m not saying, of course, that government should forcibly relocate people to achieve some kind of political or economic balance, or that government should focus on providing tax incentives to encourage people to join the local Moose lodge.  Government didn’t need to do that in colonial America or in the America of Grandpa Neal’s day, and it shouldn’t be needed now.  Somehow, though, Americans need to find a way to start actually talking to, and interacting with, each other again.

Puerto Rico’s Impending “Bankruptcy”

Puerto Rico has been struggling financially for years.  Yesterday the U.S. territory  decided to invoke a new federal statute that will allow the island to go through a process something like bankruptcy, in hopes that it will be able to shed its crushing debt load and get a “fresh start.”  Puerto Rico owes $74 billion to bondholders and has another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations and has been unsuccessful in convincing Congress to bail it out or cajoling creditors into making concessions.  Making timely principal and interest payments on its debt requires $3.5 billion in payments a year, but Puerto Rico has only $800 million to spare.  The inexorable results of that math made the quasi-bankruptcy inevitable, triggering what will be the largest government “bankruptcy” process in U.S. history.

no-bailout-puerto-ricoThe process will be something like a bankruptcy because Puerto Rico — like every U.S. state and territory — technically cannot go through the traditional federal bankruptcy process.  Instead, Puerto Rico has invoked the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (“PROMESA”), enacted during the Obama Administration, which contains some elements of the bankruptcy laws but also includes special provisions providing that, in some ways, Puerto Rico must be treated as a sovereign.  Under the PROMESA law, the process of dealing with Puerto Rico’s debt will be supervised by a federal bankruptcy judge.  Chief Justice John Roberts will appoint the judge, who will then start deciding what to do with Puerto Rico’s appalling financial problems.

Puerto Rico invoked PROMESA because a stay that had prevented creditors from suing ended and a series of creditors immediately filed suit, hoping to be first in line to be paid.  The PROMESA law stops those lawsuits and, Puerto Rico hopes, will give it substantial leverage to negotiate with creditors and try to convince them to take pennies on the dollar for the debt — with the threat that, if creditors don’t agree, the federal judge could impose an even more draconian result.  Creditors are furious.  Republicans in Congress aren’t willing to go with a bailout option, arguing that Puerto Rico has already received big federal subsidies and should explain why it got into this predicament.

It’s an entirely reasonable request that, frankly, could also be made to many U.S. cities and states that face similar debt issues.  Puerto Rico’s economy has struggled for years, and Puerto Rico officials decided, year after year, to borrow to pay their operating expenses rather than doing the responsible thing:  cutting costs, pruning government employee pensions, trimming payrolls, and forsaking pet projects in favor of fiscal prudence.  Now creditors and employees who have pension obligations will have to take pennies on the dollar, and according to a federal board Puerto Rico is “unable to provide its citizens effective services” — all because Puerto Rico’s politicians were unable to make the tough decisions and kept borrowing to put off doing so until some point in the future.  Now that time has come.

Investors who may have bought Puerto Rico bonds at a discount, after the difficulties became obvious, might not be sympathetic characters, but many of its bonds likely are held by individuals who viewed bonds issued by a U.S. territory to be a pretty safe investment that would help fund their retirement years.  And employees who have earned pensions will receive less than they were promised, meaning they’ll have to tighten their belts even though Puerto Rico’s successive governments didn’t do so.  And a default of sorts on Puerto Rico’s governmental debt isn’t going to be helpful for other governmental entities that want to borrow through issuance of bonds, either.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the federal statute that allows Puerto Rico to go through the quasi-bankruptcy process — PROMESA — sounds a lot like “promise”?  Thanks to its governmental mismanagement, for Puerto Rico the PROMESA process it will be more like promises broken.  I only hope that the successive administrations who put their heads in the sand and borrowed, borrowed, and borrowed are in some way held accountable for their gross irresponsibility.

A Giant Insurance Company With An Army

With Tax Day now behind us, it’s worth looking, again, at where our tax dollars come from and also how our tax dollars are spent.  The Brown Bear helpfully sent me an article reporting on the Taxpayer Receipt prepared by a nonpartisan group called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  While the original article is behind the Wall Street Journal website paywall, a Fox Business reprint of the article’s text is available on-line.

ss-recipientThe Taxpayer Receipt shows how every $100 in federal taxes was spent in 2016 — and, to give a sense of the trend lines, how that same $100 was spent in 2011, too.  The result supports the conclusion memorably expressed by the line I’ve used as the headline for this piece:  the United States has become a “giant insurance company with an army.”

Why?  Because half of all federal spending goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health programs, and that number is growing, with Social Security spending up 17% since 2011, Medicare up 15.1%, and Medicaid up 25.4%.  Social Security gets by far the biggest piece of the federal spending pie, receiving $23.61 of every $100 in tax dollars.  Medicare places second, with $15.26.

And what about that army?  National defense comes in third, with $15.24 of every $100 in taxes paid.  That amount dropped 22.3% from 2011 to 2016, incidentally.

On the spending side, the lesson from these numbers is clear:  we’ve become an enormous social welfare state, with benefits continuing to expand.  As the percentage increases from 2011 to 2016 indicate, the growing spending on such programs is crowding out our ability to fund other programs, like transportation infrastructure, federal parks, space exploration, and every other federal initiative you can name.  And the increased spending isn’t helping the nagging problem of Social Security solvency, either.  The program is underfunded by at least 20 percent, and under current projections the Social Security Trust Fund (not exactly an accurate moniker) will run out of money in 17 years.

Oh, and here’s another interesting data point — fully $6.25 of every $100 in tax revenue goes to pay interest on the national debt.  That number is growing, too.

On the tax generation side, the individual income tax provided 47% of the $100, with payroll taxes producing 34%, corporate income taxes 9%, and customs duties and excise taxes another 9%.

Now, get back to work!

The Inevitable Post-Election Tell-Alls

It’s been six months since the last presidential election, which means it’s time for those tell-all books about the campaign to start coming out.  The first one that I’ve read about is called Shattered:  Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

hillary_abcAs if often the case, the publishers of the books try to gin up interest by releasing supposedly tantalizing details about incidents that occurred during the campaign.  In the case of Shattered, the incidents involve a phone call in which Hillary and Bill Clinton both unloaded on the campaign staff, and the prep sessions for one of the debates with Bernie Sanders in which Hillary Clinton got mad and made one of her preparers stand up and answer questions while she critiqued him.  The underlying message of both incidents was:  Hillary Clinton was angry that she wasn’t doing better and just couldn’t recognize that the problem was due to her personal failures, rather than failures by her staff.

I enjoyed the Theodore White Making of the President books way back when, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of my all-time favorite books, but I’ve long since stopped reading the “insider” accounts that now come out after every election.  I haven’t read one in decades because the lack of loyalty inherent in the form of the book makes me sick to my stomach.  Professional staffers provide juicy tidbits as part of an overall information campaign to cover their own butts, make themselves look good, and position themselves to get hired and do it all over again in the next campaign cycle.  The losing candidate always gets torn down, while the wise, far-sighted staff that the candidate was supposedly stubbornly ignoring get elevated.

So, Hillary Clinton was frustrated that she wasn’t doing better, and from time to time lashed out at her staff when voting results or polling weren’t favorable?  Gee . . . is anybody really surprised that a person who is seeking the presidency — and who saw her election as an historic opportunity to shatter a very visible “glass ceiling” for American women — from time to time had that reaction?  When you’re on the griddle for months, 24/7, as presidential candidates are, of course there are going to be times when fatigue and frustration leave you not at your finest, and when the results aren’t going as you hoped, the effects of that fatigue and frustration will inevitably be compounded.

So Hillary Clinton lost her temper, and she and Bill Clinton administered an occasional tongue-lashing.  So what?  She lost.  Can’t we just let it be, without having rat-like staffers heaping scorn on the losing candidate with anecdotes carefully pitched to make themselves look good?  If I were a potential presidential candidate, I would never hire somebody whom I suspected was the source of leaks in one of these tell-alls.  Loyalty is an important quality when you are working for a politician, and people who leak stories to promote themselves are finks who simply can’t be trusted.